In 1985, twenty years before young women started breaking the heels of their Manolo Blahnik heels on the cobblestone streets of the “hot” Meat Market district in the West Village, Florent Morellet took over the R & L diner on Gansevoort and gave it his first name. Open 24-hours, the restaurant catered by day to the workers of the then-vital meatpacking district by day and by night to patrons of the area’s clubs and gay bars as well as the transvestite prostitutes who cruised the area.
I live just a few blocks south of the restaurant and, while I never witnessed the outlandish spectacles of the 3 am crowd, the Florent became for me -- and for hundred of other Village residents -- an integral part of the neighborhood. I've eaten scores of French-inspired breakfasts, lunches and dinners there, often bringing out of town friends to experience a bit of old world Paris in the city. Florent must close at the end of June -- on the 29th, Gay Pride Day. The $6000 monthly rent has jumped to $30,000 and the restaurant’s demise is another nail in New York City’s historic coffin.
When Florent took over the old grungy diner he didn’t alter its look in any significant way. He kept the long Formica lunch counter lined with stools. As an artist who creates maps, Florent lined the walls three deep with real and imaginary city and country plans. Among them is a small map of Liechtenstein -- hung above a table in the back right corner where nearly every day the artist Roy Lichtenstein, who had a nearby studio, took his meals.
Above the counter is a menu board that in the past provided weather forecasts, political commentary, and Florent’s T-cell count. Today, the board provides a chronology of Florent’s life: where he was born (in Clisson, France), when he came out and became an activist, his move to New York City in 1978, his becoming a citizen in 1986, his HIV diagnosis in 1987, and the first Bastille Day celebration in 1989. Every year since then Florent has transformed himself into a most credible Marie Antoinette.
The menu board also lists five days of events in which the five stages of grief will be acted out: May 26 (denial), June 2 (anger), June 9 (bargaining), June 15 (Depression) and June 28 (acceptance).
The New York Times ran a front page story about Florent -- the man and the restaurant -- in the May 21 Dining Out Section which reports that Florent, if not his staff (many of whom have worked there for years) and heartbroken patrons, is philosophical about the loss of the restaurant. For so many, Florent is the last vestige of the old neighborhood and meatpacking district, now a travesty of its former self. (May 2008)